Squirrels are the bane of existence for many people who feed birds. More than a few have thrown up their hands in despair and stopped feeding birds altogether, defeated by these ever-alert mammals that weigh little more than a mug filled with coffee.
Uninvited, these small, agile rodents elbow their way in. Not only are they clever but their persistence is nearly limitless. Sure, squirrels need to eat, but their antics keep birds away from feeders as they leap, drop and climb to reach the same seeds, nuts and suet that birds like. They can be destructive, too, damaging feeders in their intense focus on what's inside. With their ever-growing front teeth they can chew through wood and even heavy plastic, so how do we maintain some sanity in the back yard?
That's the question we asked readers some weeks ago, and the responses poured in, showing that the squirrel problem is widespread.
Some folks swear by feeders billed as "squirrel proof" by manufacturers. "I'm now able to sleep easy, knowing that the only creatures getting any of that expensive seed are the ones for which it was intended," writes Dan Carlson.
Other readers seem to enjoy the challenge of going head to head with one of nature's wiliest creatures.
Roger Schmidt struggled for years to keep squirrels at bay before he hit on his "stovepipe solution," placing a 6-inch aluminum stovepipe over a tall 4-by-4 post with the feeder on top. "It works like a charm," he says, "because it's too wide for squirrels to get their arms around."
Gerry Sande hangs his feeder from a tree branch, and then foils squirrels by adding a garbage can cover as a deterrent between branch and feeder. "The squirrels just can't get around it," he says. The lid from an old electric skillet performs the same function for Colleen Blockhus, who notes that this also protects the seed from rain and snow.
Ivan Nicholson goes one step further by placing two "witch hat" guards, several inches apart, on the metal pole holding his feeder. "Squirrels just turn around and leave when they peek over the first 'hat' and see that there's a second one to negotiate," he's found.
Mary Brassil and others swear by Slinky spring toys. They hang the spring over the feeder pole, then stand back and watch squirrels bounce off as they try to climb. (The pole still needs to be placed 10 feet or more from trees, houses or garages, so squirrels can't merely leap into feeders.)
Like all of us, squirrels have food preferences, and they don't seem to like safflower seed much. "Switch to safflower and your squirrel problems are solved," swears Pam Martensen.
"I've had great luck deterring squirrels with safflower seeds, and I still get cardinals, house finches, chickadees and goldfinches at my feeders," writes Sandy Carlin.
And then there are the customizers, who create entire systems to invite birds in but slam the door on squirrels. Chuck Wendle devised such a system out of PVC pipe, consisting of a tall pole with feeders hanging from its four arms. He painted the piping to make it a bit more slippery and increased the system's efficiency by placing metal sheeting around a nearby tree, so squirrels can't climb it and jump to feeders.
Chuck Adleman tried many things before he figured out a successful ploy. He suspends his feeder on a line between two trees, using a pulley and halyard system so he can lower the feeder to fill it. Since squirrels can still scurry along the line, he placed a tall witch-hat squirrel guard above the feeder. "In the past year, only one squirrel has made it into the feeder, and this was due to snow covering the squirrel guard," Adleman notes.
Squirrels don't bother Shirley Levitt, who attaches feeders to her windows with suction cups, then slips pie plates above each one. It helps that her windows have shallow ledges that prevent squirrel travel.
Several readers smear petroleum jelly onto feeder poles and watch squirrels slide. However, this tactic is not encouraged by experts, because birds could become smeared by the thick jelly, thereby compromising their feathers' ability to keep them dry and/or warm.
And there's the four-legged solution offered by Joe Gangelhoff: "Ever since I got my first Doberman some years ago, the squirrels started to stay away. Now that I have three dogs, I rarely see squirrels anymore."
Finally, there's the accommodation strategy. Mike Simonet sets outs black oil sunflower seeds for squirrels to protect his feeders and gardens. "It's expensive, but it's less trying than attempting to keep them off all the feeders. Squirrels only try to get at the bird feeders when their feeder is empty."
There you have it, tips from the trenches in the unceasing squirrel wars.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are some hard and fast rules for keeping squirrels on the ground, and Loren Fero states them well:
• Anchor a tall --at least 8-foot -- pole or shepherd's hook in the ground to prevent squirrels from jumping up into feeders.
• Position the pole 10 to 15 feet from any tree or structure to foil leapers.
• Place a PVC pipe or witch's hat or other predator guard around the pole to stop climbers, then hang feeders from the pole.
Fero says squirrels invaded his system only once -- when he left a ladder against the pole after filling the feeders.